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The Journal Gazette

  • File The AIDS quilt has made several stops in Fort Wayne over the years. Could a similar effort for the victims of the opioid crisis take root with Fort Wayne artists?

Tuesday, November 07, 2017 1:00 am

The art of expression

Area's creative community vital in understanding opioid addiction

Christer Watson

Abuse of opioids has become an epidemic. Overdose deaths per year are greater than those of the HIV/AIDS epidemic peak in 1995. The day-to-day worsening has been reported widely, including an in-depth series in this newspaper. The slowly changing facts, such as the switch from prescription painkillers to heroin to opioids mixed with fentanyl, have been described. However, there is still something missing from these accounts.

When an epidemic touches this many lives, the struggle, and the meaning of that struggle, need to be expressed. That expression comes through art.

I am reminded of the AIDS/HIV epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s. The nation's gay male community was suffering a nearly existential crisis. The meaning of this experience was important and something doctors and scientists could not describe. It was for the gay male community to describe for itself.

The two most well-known expressions of that experience I know of are the AIDS Memorial Quilt and the play “Angels in America.”

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is composed of 3-foot by 6-foot panels. Each panel, made by friends and families, memorializes the life of a person life who died from HIV/AIDS. The panels are put together, and portions now travel the country for display. It is a powerful, direct expression of the community's loss. When it began, it was also a demand for respect by treating the deaths with honor.

“Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” is a seven-hour play (typically produced in two, separate parts) that also came out of this experience. Tony Kushner, the author, is gay; the first production was in San Francisco.

One main character in the play, Prior Walter, acquires HIV and is abandoned by his partner, Louis. The pain of the disease and the abandonment are shown from Prior's perspective. The choices and demands that Prior makes while suffering from HIV/AIDS come from an assumption that Prior is important and valuable as a human being.

In addition to defining their own experiences for themselves, both the AIDS Quilt and “Angels in America” served as a way to communicate those experiences to a wider, straight community. When I went to see the AIDS Quilt in college in the mid-1990s, I didn't know much about the community's experiences. The viewing felt direct and powerful and human.

The other terrible U.S. epidemic of my life was that of crack/cocaine, also in the 1980s and 1990s. It was also described and defined through art. There are whole genres of music that describe the experiences, mostly of African-American men. The art I remember well, however, was the movie “Boyz n the Hood.” It shows the experiences of several young men living in South Central Los Angeles.

Critically, the movie was an expression from members of the community. The writer/director, John Singleton, grew up in LA. He was writing about these experiences with the assumption that people like him are important and valuable and if their lives are ruined by an epidemic (or society's poor response to it), that is a tragedy.

The range of this movie's characters, their reactions and choices were recognizable to me when I saw it in ninth grade, despite attending a suburban Midwest high school with few minority students. That lasting, human connection is an important service of art. It cannot be accomplished by doctors or scientists. It is communicated by artists.

The opioid epidemic needs to be expressed, and not just in medical terms. Descriptions of the death toll and the biochemistry of addiction are important, but they are not the only definition of the human experience.

We need an artistic expression. Unlike the HIV/AIDS or crack/cocaine epidemics, this crisis is not centered on the East or West coast. It is centered in places like West Virginia, Ohio and, to a lesser extent, northeast Indiana. The art about this epidemic should be made and it could be made here.

What would it look like if a defining play or monologue came out of our community? Many groups are capable of doing it: Three Rivers Music Theatre, Wunderkammer, IPFW's Theatre Department, the spoken-word group Trap Door, First Presbyterian Theater. What would it mean to friends and families of those addicted to or killed by opioids?

We, in Fort Wayne, are near the center of a very important problem and we, in Fort Wayne, could figure out how to describe and define that experience. The lives of addicts and their deaths and the meaning of those deaths are important.


Christer Watson, of Fort Wayne, is a professor of physics at Manchester University. Opinions expressed are his own. He wrote this for The Journal Gazette, where his columns appear the first and third Tuesday of each month.